Setting the Scene – a Prelude to Disaster

So here we are at the Real Cartuja in the hillside town of Valdemossa. The video below gives some idea of the atmosphere. What brought Chopin, Sand, her two children and a French maid to this extraordinary place?

In part, it was the nineteenth century equivalent of Murphy’s Law: ‘Everything that can go wrong, does.’ On arrival in Palma in November 1838, it was difficult to find lodgings, but eventually this little group of travellers found some rooms in a noisy city street, before the ever-resourceful Sand managed to rent a furnished villa (below) in Establiments, four kilometres from Palma.

Camille Pleyel, composer, piano manufacturer and eventual publisher of the French edition of the Preludes, had shipped a Pleyel piano to Chopin; it was delayed, but before it arrived a little piano was found to rent. So far, so good. Chopin wrote – ‘I’m surrounded by palm trees, cedar, cactus; lemon, orange, fig and pomegranate trees everywhere … The sky is turquoise, the sea lapis-lazuli, the mountains emerald and the air like heaven …’

Then came the rains. And with the rains, Chopin’s cough increased to the point where consumption was feared; the landlord refused to have the family rent his house, expelled them, burnt the furniture and charged them to replace it, as Spanish law decreed.

The French Consul came to the rescue by having them stay with him temporarily. A longer-term solution was then found – they could rent monastic cells, recently vacated by a revolutionary and his wife in an abandoned  Carthusian Monastery. Still without the Pleyel piano, at least there will be an organ in the monastery’s church, thought Chopin and Sand – but no; the Carthusians are a silent order of monks. You couldn’t make this story up.

Nevertheless, this motley group moved in and made the best of it. Walk though the Cartuja on a winter’s day; it is cold, and dark. Voices echo around the cloisters, as do footsteps. The Apothecary’s cell is still there, stocked with ancient bottles; it was present in Chopin’s time, too. A local woman who ‘helped’ George Sand with the domestic duties lived in; there were ruins, and a graveyard.  It was reputed to be haunted. The locals were hostile. The road to Palma was a track liable to flooding and subsidence. The Pleyel piano ended up in the customs house in Majorca; Sand pestered, haggled and persisted until it was released – for a price – and had it brought to the Cartuja. Sand’s son, Maurice, sketched Chopin performing for the locals.

And yet … Chopin wrote out the manuscript of his Preludes, and worked on the third Scherzo and the second Ballade, among other pieces. George Sand finished her novel Spiridion there; writing through the night while the others slept. In spite of Sand’s best nursing efforts, Chopin’s health deteriorated; they had to leave. Sand managed to book the family on a steamer bound for Barcelona – loaded with pigs. Hardly a salubrious choice of travelling companions, but it was the only transportation available.

In a  stone-cold monastic cell stands the Pleyel piano on which Chopin composed. Next, we’ll look at three of the pieces he would have played on it.

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A Winter in Majorca. Chopin – Preludes Op 28

Planning a winter holiday on the island of Majorca? Accommodation – a deserted monastery, the Real Cartuja, in the village of Valdemossa (above). Perhaps Bach’s Preludes and Fugues wouldn’t be on your list of must-haves, but they were on Chopin’s, when he spent the winter of 1838-9 on the island in the company of George Sand and her two children. At the beginning of their relationship, Chopin and Sand left Paris separately and travelled via different routes to meet in Perpignon, and then journeyed on to Palma (below). Why go there? Why indeed, when with hindsight the devastating effect on Chopin’s health is considered. But the idea was to escape the wagging tongues of the Paris gossips, and to exchange the harsh European winter for a milder, Mediterranean climate, in view of Chopin’s ever-present cough.One of Chopin’s projects for the winter was to complete his twenty-four preludes, commissioned by the French pianist and publisher, Camille Pleyel. Perhaps Chopin took his copy of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues for inspiration, but twenty-four preludes for piano (without fugues) in all the major and minor keys following the circle of fifths had been published by composers such as Hummel in 1815, and the German Joseph Kessler in 1831, the latter set dedicated to Chopin. Chopin returned the compliment by dedicating the German edition of his own preludes – which follow the circle of fifths, unlike Bach’s Preludes and Fugues – to Kessler.

The  Majorcan visit is well documented by George Sand in her memoirs and in her book, ‘A Winter in Majorca’.  There are letters and diaries, and even sketches by Sand’s son, Maurice. Even better – one can visit the Monastery, as I did on a cold winter’s day a few years ago.

Chopin wrote to his friend, Fontana, on 28 December 1838:

‘… Between the cliffs and the sea, a huge deserted Carthusian  monastery,  where in a cell with doors larger than any carriage-gateway in Paris you may imagine me with my hair unkempt, without white gloves and pale as ever. The cell is shaped like a tall coffin, the enormous vaulting covered with dust, the window small. In front of the window are orange trees, palms, cypresses; opposite the window is my camp-bed under a Moorish filigree rose-window. Close to the bed is an old square grubby box which I can scarcely use for writing on, with a leaden candlestick (a great luxury here) and a little candle. Bach, my scrawls and someone else’s old papers  … silence … you can yell … still silence. In short, I am writing to you from a queer place.’

So let us open the door of the Cartuja, a building ‘soaked in the silence of centuries’, and step back in time …

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A family affair. Bach – Prelude in C

There are times when a sudden discovery on the internet stops us in our tracks. For me, the image below is one of those moments, as I come face to face (albeit digitally)  with the manuscript of JS Bach’s Prelude in C from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier – The Well-Tempered Clavier.



Say ‘Prelude’ to a pianist in a word association game. The likely reply may well be ‘Fugue’, and thoughts will turn to JS Bach’s two volumes of Preludes and Fugues. In the first book, written in 1722 possibly as an experiment in equal temperament, the key scheme progresses chromatically from C major to C minor, then C# major/C# minor etc. right through the twelve major and twelve minor keys. Volume two, dated between 1739 and 1742, repeats the process.

But even more fascinating is this – the same prelude, but from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s notebook, the collection of pieces written by Johann Sebastian in 1720 for his eldest son by his first wife, when Wilhelm was 10. It starts in the familiar way, but then breaks off from the figuration to write the harmonic patterns, on which the figurations are based, as chords.

bach-wtc1-prelude1-early-msThe prelude appears yet again in the Anna Magdalena Notebook of 1725 – this was the second of two notebooks compiled for Anna Magdalena Bach, JS Bach’s  second wife, containing keyboard works and arias by various composers. In this version, 4 bars are omitted, perhaps so that  it can be fitted into two landscape manuscript pages. To see the first sixteen bars, scroll down to the sixth page here. (And rotate!)

Musically, the prelude follows a  journey from C major back to C major, via a series of modulations; to the dominant key of G major first, followed by the anxiety of D minor, soon resolved. The choice of harmonies becomes gradually darker until a long passage over a dominant pedal point brings the final relief of a perfect cadence; even then, Bach initially inserts a B flat , briefly turning towards the nostalgia of the sub-dominant key, before cancelling it and reaching the safety-net of the tonic chord.

In the manuscript of the second book of Preludes and Fugues, not only is Bach’s handwriting evident, but also Anna Magdalena’s, Wilhelm Friedemann’s – and that of JS Bach’s son- in-law, Johann Altnickol. They all helped with the copying. Very much a family affair.

Here is Schiff –




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The Ubiquitous Prelude


When researching Chopin’s Preludes for a presentation at 2016’s Summer School for Pianists, I was struck by the widespread use of the title –  from before Bach, to Kapustin and beyond. Preludes pop up everywhere, sometimes singly, sometimes in sets of twenty-four, harnessed to fugues, with and without descriptive titles, introducing suites. And then there’s the verb: ‘to prelude’, referring to past centuries’ custom of an improvisatory ‘preluding’ to another piece. Most recently, I discovered this little known Prelude by Liszt, specifically composed ‘to prelude’ a polka by Cui (described in the previous post).

So this year I plan to explore the world of The Ubiquitous Prelude. We will start in the key of C.  And we’ll start with Bach …

Above, manuscript of Chopin’s Prelude in F# minor, Op 28 no 8.

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All Hands on Deck – including Liszt’s and Rachmaninoff’s. The Paraphrases, and Two Pieces for Piano 6 hands.

borodinIt’s New Year’s Eve, 6.50am, and time to write the final post of 2016. Thank you, dear Reader, for sharing this journey through Mussorgsky’s Pictures and other Russian musical curiosities with me.

The penultimate work in this series of blogposts is the volume known as the Paraphrases. It is a collection of pieces for three hands and five hands, in two editions, by Borodin, [left], Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov in the first edition, published in 1879, and added to those composers in the second edition, works by Shcherbachyov and Liszt, published in 1893.


Have you ever been driven to distraction by children hammering out ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano?! There’s a Russian version of it, Tati-Tati, in single notes rather than in clusters, which formed the inspiration for the Paraphrases. At 2016’s Summer School for Pianists, Karl Lutchmayer, Graham Fitch and I performed the Carillon by Rimsky-Korsakov from the Paraphrases as a five-handed piece. The story of the Paraphrases, partly told by Borodin himself, appears in this quote from  ‘Borodin and Liszt’ by Alfred Habets.

‘About this time, Borodin collaborated with his friends, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadoff and Cui, in a work, apparently humorous, but really of a serious nature, entitled “Paraphrases,” twenty-four variations, and fourteen little pieces for piano, on a favourite theme obligato, “dedicated to little pianists who can play the air with one finger of each hand. [So strictly speaking, the pieces use four and six hands, but you can use just one hand for the top part.]

This theme, consisting of four bars, must be played by the first performer on the upper octaves of the piano, while the second player performs the paraphrases, for which more than a mere tyro is needed.

For this lengthy work Borodin wrote three pieces, by no means the least interesting, entitled ” Polka,” ” Marche Funebre ” and ” Requiem “; this last, in which a liturgical chant is developed as a fugue upon the popular and persistent air, is especially striking.

In one of his last letters addressed to his friends, Monsieur and Madame G. Huberti, December 14th, 1886, Borodin relates the origin of this work : —

” I take the liberty of sending you, for your little girls, my — or rather our — ‘Paraphrases,’ twenty-four variations, and fourteen little pieces for piano on the favourite theme of the Coteletten Polka, which is so popular with the little ones in Russia. It is played with the first finger of each hand. The origin of this humorous work is very funny. One day Gania (one of my adopted daughters) asked me to play a duet with her. ‘ ”Well, but you do not know how to play, my child.”

” Yes, indeed, I can play this -” tatitati

I had to yield to the child’s request, and so I improvised the polka which you will find in the collection.

[Listen to track 11 on this CD for the Polka.]

The four keys, C major, G major, F minor and A minor, of the four parts of the polka, in which the unchanging theme of the Coteletten Polka makes a kind of canto fermo or counter-point, caused much laughter among my friends, afterwards joint-authors of the Paraphrases. They were amused. First one and then another wanted to try his hand at a piece in this style. The joke was well received by our friends. We amused ourselves by performing these things with people who could not play the piano. Finally, we were requested to publish this work. Rahter became the proprietor and publisher. This music fell into Liszt’s hands, who was delighted with it.

He wrote a charming letter about it to one of his friends in St Petersburg ; the letter was very flattering to the author of the ‘ Paraphrases.’ One day the friend of Liszt’s who had received this letter mentioned it in a musical article. The critics, our enemies, were infuriated, and said that Liszt could not have approved of such a work, that he never wrote the letter, that the whole thing was a falsehood, and finally that we composers had compromised ourselves by the publication of such a work. 

franz_liszt_1880sWhen Liszt heard all this he laughed heartily. He wrote to us: — ‘If this work is considered compromising, let me compromise myself with you.’ It was then that he sent the scrap of music that serves as an introduction to my Polka, requesting Rahter to print it in the second edition of the ‘ Paraphrases ‘ already in the press. In view of Liszt’s great authority, Rahter thought well to engrave the facsimile of the leaflet sent by the great master. The reproduction of this leaflet was printed and added to the music of the first edition. Our enemies were silenced. Liszt was very fond of this humorous work, and it always amused him to play it with his pupils.

The page added by Liszt bore the title : — ” Variation for the second edition of the marvellous work of Borodin, Cesar Cui, Liadoff and Rimsky-Korsakoff, by their devoted Franz Liszt, Weimar, July 28th, 1880. To be placed between pages 9 and 10 of the early edition, after the finale of C. Cui, and as prelude to the polka by Borodin.” 

You can see the whole work here. And below is Liszt’s Prélude , with its accompanying notes and instructions for publicationprinted in the second edition as a facsimile. Click here for a recording.


 So who has the final word in 2016?  Rachmaninoff, who composed Two Pieces for Pianoforte Six Hands in 1890-91, a Waltz and a Romance, published in 1948. Here they are – performed by Tamás Vásáry, Kálmán Dráfy and the late Zoltán Kocsis at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.  Listen to the opening of the Romance, and you’ll find the opening idea from the second movement of the composer’s second piano concerto. Happy New Year!




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A Show of Hands – Rachmaninoff – for Four Hands

Following on from Scriabin’s pieces for left hand alone, let’s look now at his friend Rachmaninoff’s works for four hands at one piano, and for four hands at two pianos.

The Six Morceaux Op 11, for piano duet, were written in 1894. The movements are Barcarolle,  Scherzo, Chanson Russe, Valse, Romance and Slava [Gloria]. These are for more advanced pianists, and make a delightful set of pieces. Above are Martha Argerich and Lilya Zilberstein.

Even earlier is the Suite No 1 Op 5 for two pianos, composed in 1893, and dedicated to Tchaikowsky. Known as the ‘Fantasie-Tableaux’, it was intended to represent a series of musical pictures, based on poetry, and was first performed by Rachmaninov and Pavel Pabst in Moscow.  Follow the score below, and listen to Vadim Rudenko and Nicolai Lugansky in an astonishing live performance. These are demanding pieces. There are four movements: Barcarolle, La nuit … L’amour … ,  Les Larmes, and Pâques. The final movement is full of bell-like sonorities, which pervade so much Russian music.

And then there’s the Suite No 2, Opus 17, composed in Italy in 1901, and first performed by Rachmaninov and his cousin, Alexander Siloti. This is a firm favorite with pianists and with audiences – and it’s not for the faint-hearted player. Solid chords launch the Introduction: Alla marcia, which bowls along with cheerful confidence. Then comes the sparkle and glitter of the Valse. Who can resist its effervescent ebullience, fizzing like champagne in G major, then gliding suavely across the floor with its cross-rhythmed, elongated melody in E flat major, swirling seductively. The next movement, the Romance, is just that – full-blooded, with sumptuous, soaring melodies and rich harmonies. And to finish, a lively, scintillating Tarantelle. 

I love the performance by André Previn and Ashkenazy, which I can’t find on YouTube.  It is said that Rachmaninoff and Horowitz played this Suite at a party in Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Wish I’d been there …

Below are Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire. Enjoy!


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Give us a Hand

It has been a pleasure this year to perform in concerts which have included not only solo works for two hands, but works for one hand – and to be joined by pianist friends in works for four hands, five, six and eight hands. Piano can be a lonely instrument; chamber music is a joy, and piano ensemble pieces bring their own pleasures and challenges.

Continuing the Russian theme, let’s look first at pieces for left hand alone, by Scriabin. His Op 9 consists of a Prelude and Nocturne. Damaging his right hand while at the Moscow Conservatory when practising one of  Liszt’s transcriptions and Balakirev’s Islamey, he turned to composition and to developing his left hand; although he regained the use of his right hand, his subsequent compositions do make full use of both, with florid LH passages.

The Prelude, in C sharp minor, is an introspective gem. Sad and melancholy, the thumb is used to good effect in projecting the melody. Other fingers need to play accompanying chords discreetly. It ends sweetly on an unexpected major triad; the Nocturne continues this major tonality, flowering into arabesques, fiorature and passion reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes.

Some interesting recordings here by two Russian-born pianists –  Cherkassky above, and Neuhaus, below.

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